Review Of Monica
Wood’s Ernie’s Ark
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/9/05
Ernie’s Ark by Monica Wood could not merely be a great book, but possibly great literature were there just a bit more depth to it. I state this to differentiate this fact from the typical lower case ‘great’ that adorns the book covers of every piece of schlock the publishing world wastes pulp on. The great I state is with a capital G. That this book ever got published, by Ballantine Books, must be a testament to randomness, for I seriously doubt the author’s agent, editor, and publisher knew what they had, and, if one can read between the lines on the author’s website, and an interview printed in the book, after the work, neither, perhaps, did the author. More on that later.
It’s time to express appreciation for this possibly great work. I picked it up for under $4 at a typical book discounter after skimming through some of the stories to read their ends. I have learnt through the years that it is about a 90% surety that a well-written story ending augurs a good story. These ended well, so I got it. I’d never heard of Ms. Wood before, although she’d written two novels prior to this collection of short stories, and one after. However, the truth is that Ernie’s Ark is one of those short story collections that is a de facto novel, set in a specific time and place, with intertwined characters, despite the author’s denial of such in a printed interview in the book. In that way it might draw reasonable comparisons to James Joyce’s Dubliners, but they would be false comparisons because a) Dubliners only has minor crossovers of minor characters in two or three stories, while Ernie’s Ark’s nine stories are all intimately connected, as her characters alternate between major and minor roles, like the works of Kurt Vonnegut or William Kennedy. Some tales even reproduce scenes almost verbatim, but from differing perspectives. And b) Ernie’s Ark is, simply put, a better overall book than Dubliners. Of the fifteen tales in Joyce’s classic five are great, five are good to solid, and five are simply not good short stories. Of the nine tales in Wood’s book, 3 or four are great, the same number are arguably great, with the other two still pretty good.
Now, one may argue that Joyce’s tales are more complex, and have stood the test of time, and I’ll admit there is not a tale in Wood’s book as complex in its greatness as Joyce’s near novella The Dead, but the book, since it is far more structurally and psychically bound by its narratives and characterizations, is far more complex as a whole than Joyce’s book, for the way each tale builds upon, and parallaxes, the other tales creates a geometrically progressive structure, even as the internal portions of each story are relatively simple. There are no real throwaway tales, ones that can be skipped over- as in most collections, and no tales that will be hermetically sealed off from lay readers in a century because of arcane politics or quirks limited to a bygone era. Yet, Wood’s tales are sleek, emotively powerful things. They live and squirm in your mind like fleshy worms that can be repulsive for their feel, yet joyous in that you know there are living breathing ideas and characters within. And there is another fact that establishes Wood’s book’s greatness and superiority to Joyce’s. It has something else that Dubliners does not have, and that is a big single event and issue upon which the whole book revolves. Wood’s book is set mainly at what appears to be the turn of the 21st Century (with one mostly flashback story as an exception), in the fictional Maine town of Abbott Falls. But it also revolves around the town’s reaction to the decision of its main employer (Atlantic Pulp & Paper) to force its workers out on strike- and my characterization of the dilemma is perfectly in synch with Wood’s sympathies, over the course of a little more than a year.
In this way it more closely reminds me of another great contemporary collection of short stories, rather than Dubliners- and that is Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones’ Lost In The City, in which nine of its fourteen tales were arguably great, and whose individual tales were somewhere between Joyce’s and Woods’ in terms of individual complexity. Yet, Jones’ tales were not as connected to each other nor a central event as Wood’s tales are.
Let me now summarize story by story, going chronologically. The first tale is the titular Ernie’s Ark, which follows Ernie Whitten, a pipefitter at AP&P, who just weeks before his retirement, went out on strike. Not long after his wife Marie became terminally ill. To somehow reconnect with himself and the world he decides to build a miniature version of Noah’s Ark for a local college art show. Although miniature, the vessel still takes up a good portion of his backyard, and he ends up getting fined by a part-time city inspector named Dan Little, also on strike from the AP&P. In the end Ernie does not win the art show’s prize, and his wife dies. But, the tale is loaded with little moments that really sketch the characters. For example, after a nurse at the hospital refers to Marie in a generic collective ‘they’- meaning the terminally ill, here is how Wood describes the protagonist’s reaction:
He didn’t like this nurse, the way she called Marie ‘they.’ He thought of adding her to the list of people and things he’d grown accustomed to railing against, but because his rage was gone, there was no place to put her. He returned to the ark, climbed onto the deck, and began to nail the last shingles to the shallow pitch of the roof. Marie’s voice floated out again, and he looked up again, and her hand rose again, and he nodded again, hoping she could see his smiling, his damp collar, the handsome knot of his forearm. He was wearing the clothes he wore to work back when he was working, a grass-colored gabardine shirt and pants- his greens, Marie called them. In some awful way he recognized this as one of the happiest times of his life; he was brimming with industry and connected to nothing but this one woman, this one patch of earth.
Look at the details that resonate, how realistic is such a petty resentment in such a moment. These are the instances of awareness that separate the great writers from the rest. Wood gets it. It is moments like this that make this first tale a great one. Add to that that Wood could have copped out with a sappy ending in the aftermath of Marie’s death. Instead, the tale ends imagistically- neither up nor down.
The next tale, At The Mercy, follows Henry McCoy, the CEO of AP&P, trying to connect with his spoiled twentysomething daughter- who’s a Left Wing PC brat, and is probably the weakest in the book, excepting perhaps the last tale. That said, it’s by no means a bad story. Here’s Wood on his motivation for forcing the strike, and his ambivalence:
What my daughter believes about the common man is that the common man wants nothing more than respect and recognition. Plus a roomy dining-room table on which to feed his five noble, sad-eyed children whose superior intelligence shall never be known because of people like me intent on keeping the tired tired, the poor poor, and the masses huddled. Unlike me, however, my daughter has never been a common man. What the common man wants is money, and that’s all she wrote.
Look how elegantly Wood sums up the character’s cynicism and bitterness, while also exposing the daughter’s hypocrisy, as well. They end up encountering a mob of the strikers and barely escaping, but neither father nor daughter really connects with the other. The tale ends with a nice moment, but it is probably the most straightforward, conventional, and pat of the tales- by no means a bad one, but nowhere near great, either.
That One Autumn is the flashback tale, which deals with Marie Whitten, Ernie’s wife, before she died. One day she recalls a time, years earlier, in the 1970s, when she and Ernie almost spilt up as their son James was going off to college. Marie went to their cabin alone, to think things out, but was taken hostage by a thin teenaged girl, hiding out with her criminal boyfriend. The girl and Marie connect, to a degree, but then the boyfriend comes back, ties Marie up, and orders the girl, Tracey, to kill Marie while he goes off to the car. Instead, Tracey merely cuts Marie on the forehead, enough to bloody the knife, to satisfy the boyfriend, yet spare Marie. She felt the connection that Marie did, too. Eventually, Ernie comes to the cabin and they reconcile. The ending is terrific, not just because it’s a narratively good ending, but because it’s an example of how great writing subverts seeming clichés. Let me quote the last two paragraphs, then explain:
And then? They no longer looked back on this season as the autumn when they lost their second child. This season- with its uneven temperatures and propensity for inspiring flight- they recalled instead as that one autumn when those awful people, that terrible pair, broke into the cabin. They exchanged one memory for the other, remembering Ernie’s raging, man-sized sobs as he worked at the stiff rawhide, remembering him rocking her under a shaft of moonlight that sliced through the door he’d left open, remembering, half-laughing, that the first thing Marie wanted to do, after being rescued by her prince, was pee. This moment became the turning point- this moment and no other- when two long-married people decided to stay married, to succumb to the shape of the rest of their life, to live with things they would not speak of. They shouldered each other into the coming years because there was no other face each could bear to look at in this moment of turning, no other arms they could bear but each other’s, and they made themselves right again, they did, just the two of them.
‘Hold me, Ernie,’ she says now, lifting her arms as she did then. He does. He holds her.
Now, if one were to read the last paragraph alone, it is a terrible cliché; albeit a bit ameliorated for the duplicity of time frames being referenced for the same act. But, this is not a cliché because a cliché is not only a familiar word, idea, or phrase, but that familiarity in a familiar context, as well. The penultimate paragraph utterly decontextualizes the moment of their congress from merely being that of comfort for one or two ills- the burglary of yore and the current disease, to being something more, a symbol of their choice to continue their marriage. Reading just the last paragraph one is inclined to wince, but with the paragraph before it one reads the wince moment as something more. This, in fact, was the ending that I read in the bookstore that convinced me to buy the book. It also proves how vital quoting something in context is, for there is no arguing that the last paragraph is a cliché- read alone. But, in context, Wood utterly ameliorates the seemingly bad ending.
The Temperature Of Desire is another terrific story, which follows Dan Little, the inspector from Ernie’s Ark. In it we find out about his life, family, and travails, as well as getting a glimpse of his view of Ernie and his ark. Basically, he and his brothers are out on strike, but his youngest brother Tim decides to scab, and cross the picket line. He does it partly to get back at the family he never felt close to, and also just to be different, Eventually, strikers kill his cat, and he decides to leave town. This is probably the most complex and political tale in the book, and does a great job of examining crossed motivations. Many of the scabs are black, and the strikers hate them. Are they racists? Dan contemplates suicide, but decides to live, and shares a final moment with Tim before he leaves. The two do not speak, and Tim does not answer Dan’s mail. Again, Wood makes an excellent choice to avoid a schmaltzy ending, and the tale reaches greatness for that wisdom.
The next tale is The Joy Business, and follows the life of Dan’s ex-wife, now a flower shop owner, named Cindy Love- who has remarried, to a bad artist and wannabe college professor, named Bruce, that cheats on her all the time. She has two stepkids in their teens- Kenny, and Francine- the youngest daughter who idolizes her stepmom, and actually picked her out as a replacement for her mom after her mom abandoned the family. The tale paints her side of the split with Dan, as well sketching more of his clan’s background, but it also establishes the Loves as one of the two pivotal families in the book, along with the Whittens. Cindy is unhappy, but senses she is doing what the town needs done by being a place people can express Joy through, and she feels she must not abandon Francine, even though she longs to leave her second husband, who seems oblivious to her frustrations. Another realistic ending makes this tale a winner, as well.
Visitors’ starts off following the life of a grown James Whitten, who lives in San Francisco, California, who hears of his mom’s death from his father. He reluctantly asks his soon-to-be ex-wife Karen to fly back with him. She does, and he and his father connect a bit over the odd ark in the backyard. At Marie’s wake James tells his father that he is divorcing Karen, and than an odd thing occurs. A woman enters needing to speak to Marie, to give her $400. It is Tracey, who was a teenager in the earlier That One Autumn. She has spent years trying to make up for her sins, and we learn that she and her boyfriend were eventually caught, but got off lightly. James was in the dark on all of this and when Ernie confronts Tracey Wood wisely doesn’t go for the cheap and mawkish forgiveness angle, but, instead for the real:
His father’s face continued to transform itself, an expression James remembered from the few times, as a mouthy teenager, he’d suffered Ernie’s rage. Always it was about defending Marie, defending his wife against the rudeness of his son, ‘They gave you a wrist-slap,’ his father was saying, his voice shimmering with fury. ‘You came into the courtroom with your lawyer father and your pretty dress and got a wrist-slap.’
‘What’s going on?’ James asked, his blood beginning to pulse woozily. ‘Dad, what are you talking about?’
Tracey began to weep, her palm still open, money stacked like a deck of cards. Karen shot James a look: Do something.
‘When I got there she was bleeding,’ his father said. ‘Her little hands were tied, and her ankles.’ He looked at James, a scary, loosened look. ‘Your mother was a husky woman. But she had such little hands.’ Before James could stop him, he lunged at Tracey. ‘You get out of my wife’s house!’ he raged, his face finally crumpling like burnt steel. Both fists bunched and shook. ‘Get out, get out of her house!’
Tracey flinched violently, then bolted for the front door, flinging the words I’m sorry, I’m sorry like coins over her shoulder. When the door shuddered closed, the house fell silent.
Note all that’s going on- the memory of the crime, the reactions of building rage, James’ confusion, Tracey’s guilt, James’ and Ernie’s relationship, and even the hint of the marital woes of James and Karen as she implores, but he is impotent. Eventually James goes outside and shrives Tracey by taking her money, although his reasons are suspect- another way to avoid the mawkish. It also ends greatly, and rings true. The only downside to the tale is that the contrivance of Tracey’s return may seem just that, and without reading the other tale(s) this tale does not read as well alone- but as a chapter in the book it works very well, and touches greatness overall for the wonderful, and subverting of expectations, descriptions Wood uses- such as ‘his blood beginning to pulse woozily’, rather than boil, or ‘flinging the words I’m sorry, I’m sorry like coins over her shoulder’.
Take Care Good Boy follows Kenny Love after he inherits his grandfather’s cabin. He moves out, despite his father’s protests, and has a wonderfully Thoreauvian adventure. It is probably my favorite of the tales, although it is perhaps the most easy read. The next story, Solidarity Is Not A Floor, follows his sister Francine, who has a crush on Jesse Jackson, who is scheduled to come rally the union at a televised event, as the strike has made national news. But, the news hits that the company is closing the plant and firing the scabs. Yet, then the tale hits its real target- not the union, nor politics, nor the strike, but Francine’s loneliness as she confronts her father on his affair, and that Cindy will leave him if she finds out. Francine makes it clear that things will never be the same between father and daughter if her stepmom leaves. She exerts real power in a town left impotent and bewildered. Yet, look at how wonderfully Wood describes the girl’s feelings, fantasy, and future:
She is entranced. Although she has memorized whole sections of his speeches, and this speech in particular, Jesse’s voice visits her as something both familiar and strange, as if she’d stepped into her morning shower and out poured gold dust, or feathers, or butterflies. Francine does not understand that she is falling, that Jesse Jackson is the first in what will be a series of miserable crushes, that when the news of Jesse’s love child breaks two years hence, she will be sick with betrayal. Instead, she feels as if she is rising. Rising toward knowledge. She waits for the feeling to pass, and mercifully, it doesn’t. By the time Jesse Jackson lifts his chin and exhorts his listeners to ‘keep hope alive, keep hope alive, keep hope alive,’ she believes he is talking directly to her.
This is a truly great story, not only narratively, but structurally it is loaded with gems like this, to describe how detached her dad is from the town’s travails: ‘Blaine College, about forty miles and fifteen solar systems west of Abbott Falls.’ Wood really scores big with this tale, and even admits that Francine is her favorite character in the book’s interview section, and says that she will be the lead in a future novel.
The last story Shuffle, Step is the second tale in the book that is not great- albeit still a pretty good story. That this relatively weak- emphasis on the word ‘relatively’- story ends the book disappoints, and its own weakest point is the story’s end, which is a bit of a letdown for the story and the whole narrative arc of the book. Basically, James has returned to visit Ernie, months after Marie’s death. Ernie’s won dances lessons from a raffle he bought from Francine- a neighbor he was not even aware of. The town and Ernie are recovering. A South African company has bought the paper mill and decided to honor the contracts and back wages. James decides to help Ernie fix up the decaying ark, for his mom’s sake, and the tale and book close on them merely getting to work- an ending that I call The Linda Ellerbee End, for the famed newscaster who used to chime, ‘And so it goes….’ to end every newscast. All in all, a quite disappointing end to an otherwise magnificent story collection, which also works as the novel of a small town during a crisis, for the tale would really have little reason to exist alone. It works merely as a wrap up for the book, tacked on for mere narrative circularity. Its ending, too, which focuses on Ernie and James, veers so less to the dictates of the story, whose main character (and emotional focus) is actually Francine, and more to that of the overall book. While this may be needed for the book’s end, it is a flaw for the individual story to end that way. Another point is that all nine stories, taken as a whole, work better than as individual tales- there is synergy.
Wood is certainly a writer with talent and, better yet, accomplishment, and I will one day have to read her novels. If they are even a third as good as this they will also be worth being in print- something I rarely state, as I am a tough but fair critic. The book, and Wood’s website, www.monicawood.com, proclaim her a winner of a Pushcart Prize, but I have to wonder how this book didn’t snag the 2002 Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award? Did Ballantine Books even nominate it? I wonder because the Pushcart is pretty much a joke of a literary prize- the equivalent of a Yugo in automobiles, as any website or small press, no matter how poor in quality, can nominate any piece of crap they post or publish for the award, for there is no entry fee which demands the publisher actually believe in its nominated work- only that they nominate a work, which results in the work being used merely as an advertising ploy.
Then, again, one need only look online, and at the book’s blurbs, to see how the very generic blurbery of the book disservices it. For example, Booklist declares, ‘These quirky stories reaffirm faith in human resilience, even when adversity brings out the worst in human nature.’ This naked banality describes an Oprah Book Club selection, not this rich work- and none of the stories, if the reviewer actually read them, could remotely be defined as ‘quirky’. The San Francisco Chronicle states, ‘Her prose is careful yet still quivers.’ What exactly does a story do that makes it quiver- even metaphorically? This makes no sense, and utterly masques Wood as a generic PC monstrosity, rather than the person behind a great and significant piece of literature. Instead, one might think she’s just another hack who got an old friend from a workshop to scratch her back. Even mighty Amazon can do nothing but resort to the worst of clichés: ‘Written with a quiet grace and lyrical power, Ernie’s Ark is a moving work by a writer who understands the vagaries and hopes of the human heart.’ Or did they really refer to Deepak Chopra?
Such banalities spit at great art, for their generic nature occludes any real understanding of the work. This book has far more in truck with great literature as contained in a Dubliners, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, than the feeble published story collections of today. Like those earlier works, Wood is never didactic nor patronizing, even as she is never overtly reverential of themes nor characters- even those she clearly sides with in the strike. As example, one feels the full force of Tim’s loss over his murdered cat, by strikers angry at his scabbing, in The Temperature Of Desire. Yet, as I said earlier, a book this good getting published is unfortunately far more a testament to randomness than anything else, for the usual prerequisites for getting a book of short stories published is to have some of them published in the ‘big’ magazines: Harper’s, the New Yorker, etc., even if you’ve had some books published before. Only those authors who have won major awards, gotten major exposure, or established track records as bestsellers usually sidestep those requia. So, I assign the book’s publication to the fact that it was merely liked by someone, not truly understood for its literary greatness. Still, although her publisher may have stumbled onto publishing the book, hopefully they now realize its literary merit. I’ve long maintained that books reach print because they are liked, but stay in print only if they are actually good.
This idea- of merely stumbling into greatness, applies to the author herself, for it seems that Ms. Wood may very well be one of those writers capable of stray greatness, but not its replicability, nor knowledge of how that greatness was achieved. As I said once, in a sonnet, ‘Greater than transcendence is its recognition,’ for to know how to achieve greatness is greater than achieving greatness, just as knowing how to fish is greater than having a fish to eat. Two things point to the possibility Wood is a stumbler, although I hope I’m wrong. The first is that, in scanning her website and looking through her book, she seems to consistently praise writers demonstrably inferior to her own accomplishment- a fact that is unfortunately not uncommon amongst writers of merit seemingly obsessed with those that have little or none (imagine Hart Crane longing to be Henry Darger!). The second is that she seems wont to giving very generic and non-specific advice that is of, at best, specious merit for such can often lead to writers becoming very dogmatic in their approach to art, rather than being pragmatic as to the needs of each work.
That said, these are minor concerns, for one need only compare her writing to the insistently PC tripe put out by a Jhumpa Lahiri, or the ‘risky, innovative’ crap published by a Rick Moody to see that Wood’s comparative ‘classicism’ is not subject to the stultifying repetitions of the former, nor cornucopia of clichés that define the latter, for the writing does more, itself, and pushes more boundaries than either of those two dominant trends in fiction, which damn character, shun narrative ingenuity, and stultify true imagination. In short, contemporary published writing shuns risk and ambition- this book does not. And unlike the postmodern posing of a David Foster Wallace, which, taken in either excerpts or a whole, is garbage, the writing of Monica Wood, as I’ve shown, is not. It is great in fractal ways- in the brief or in the main, and it survives rereading, which all great writing does, for it is loaded with things that connect in differing ways in differing moods of the reader.
So, let me end where I began: this is possibly great literature. I know, from personal experience, that great literature is still being written. This is proof that it is still being published, however randomly. If you do not believe me then I say, trust your senses as you read the book, for it will feel real. Fiction that you know is fiction is rarely great; it’s only when you unconsciously fall into it that greatness has been breached. Yet, paradoxically, it feels normal, ordinary. But, it’s a different sort of ordinary. Buy this book, recommend it to friends, and do so knowing the difference between merely liking a work and recognizing its technical greatness. I do, even though I would have liked to see a different ending, and would have preferred each tale to be a little thicker and richer, and to have done a little more overall, as a book. But I recognize this bias, and understand that a critic’s job is to evaluate, not translate, nor judge a work by what it isn’t, but what it is. I do this exceedingly well, and know that Wood has done enough to be accorded a just accolade of greatness for some of her work, and will happily settle for such an addition to the canon, even if I would have liked a little more. Would that such ‘disappointments’ all went as well.
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